Language and Narrative Skills of School-Age Bilingual Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 4, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)


Background: Parents of bilingual children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are often advised to communicate with their children using only one language (Hudry et al., 2017). Yet, the available evidence, largely from pre-school and kindergarten-age children, suggests that bilingualism does not hinder early language development in ASD (Hambly and Fombonne 2012; Kay-Raining Bird et al., 2016). Less is known about bilingual development in ASD at later ages, when language abilities become more complex and are used in academic settings. This knowledge is essential to inform childrearing and educational decisions for the growing number of families with a child with ASD living in bilingual contexts.

Objectives: The aim of the current set of studies was to compare the language skills of bilingual and monolingual school-age children with ASD without intellectual disability, using both standardized tests and a picture sequencing narrative task.

Methods: Participants were 6 to 10 year old speakers of French, English, Spanish or two of these languages. Results reported here are for their dominant language, which was always French or English, both majority languages in Montreal, Quebec. In study 1 we investigated the vocabulary and morphological skills of monolinguals (n = 14) and bilinguals (n = 13) with ASD using standardized tests. In Study 2 we analyzed the short narratives of four groups of French-speaking participants: bilingual children with and without ASD (n = 10), and monolingual children with and without ASD (n = 10). Children were given a set of three pictures depicting a scenario. They were asked to place the pictures in sequence and tell a story about it. The macrostructure (e.g., story’s coherence) and microstructure (e.g., use of connectives) of the stories was assessed. In both studies groups were matched on chronological age, nonverbal IQ, symptom severity and maternal education.

Results: Study 1: both groups of children with ASD performed within the average range on the vocabulary test, but the monolinguals outperformed bilinguals. There was not a significant difference between groups on the morphology test, although there was a trend for monolinguals to perform better than bilinguals. Study 2: A main effect of diagnostic group was observed for narrative macrostructure, where typically-developing children performed better with respect to providing coherent narratives. There was no main effect of bilingualism. No significant differences were found in microstructure.

Conclusions: Similar results to those reported for typical development were found for vocabulary and morphological skills, where amount of language exposure plays an important role on language performance, and monolinguals outperform bilinguals when one language is assessed (e.g., Bialystok et al., 2010). Strikingly, however, functional language use during a brief narrative task was similar between groups, suggesting that the differences observed in Study 1 may not have a significant functional impact. For instance, children in all groups used correct grammatical gender, and connectives in their stories. These results provide new insights into the language skills of bilingual children with ASD, and are globally in line with prior work suggesting that bilingualism does not have a negative impact on language development.